It is no small task selecting the exemplary and outstanding individuals upon whom to bestow the accolade of honorary degree from a university. The world is bejeweled with multitudes of talented and innovative individuals who have dedicated themselves to bettering their communities. Whether their work is humanitarian, scientific, artistic, or academic, these bright leaders continuously provide an inspiring example to those eager to leave the arena of education and emerge as contributing members of society. As such, this time-honored tradition of selecting the exceptional few for honorary degrees has had much discussion devoted to it. In his book Liberal Education and the Public Interest, James Freedman, president emeritus of Dartmouth College and the University of Iowa, offers forth his observations and wisdom on awarding this honor. Additionally, Mike Martin, philosophy professor at Chapman University, discusses the attributes necessary in becoming truly extraordinary in one’s profession in his writing, Meaningful Work: Rethinking Professional Ethics. The attention given to the topic of conferring honorary degrees for remarkable achievements by both these academics demonstrates the importance of electing the most appropriate person to represent the character and goals of a university. In considering who might be given the honor of speaking at the University of Southern California’s 2007 commencement and holding an honorary degree from the institution, Al Gore proves to be a positive choice. As not only the former Vice President of the United States, but also a public advocate of environmental awareness and activism, Gore’s continued dedication to his work, the community, and ethics distinguishes him as an outstanding member of the humanitarian and political realms.
James Freedman maintains that awarding honorary degrees affords “college presidents with an opportunity to emphasize an institution’s values” (117). As such, it is important to first understand what standards and ethics the school promotes and the goals it is striving to accomplish before making a nomination. The University of Southern California (USC) clearly delineates its values in the school’s Role and Mission. Of chief concern to the university “is the development of human beings and society as a whole,” a goal sought through research, community involvement, public leadership and service, and the development of Southern California, the nation, and the world. Al Gore embodies these principles in his continued public service as well as the position he has taken at the forefront of the environmental movement. In his “vow to make the climate crisis the top priority of [his] professional life” (8), Gore seeks to better the community on a global scale. He does so by raising awareness about environmental issues, laying bare environmental misinformation circulated by the media and the administration, working to sway legislation, and prompting the populace to take an active role in preserving the planet for future generations. His work goes beyond merely developing a more constructive present society, but improving that of the future. In his recent book, An Inconvenient Truth, he maintains that we have “an obligation to safeguard [the] future and protect the Earth we are bequeathing to [our children]” (11). Gore is an active force in changing the global environmental situation through his service in political office and his presence in the public arena delivering speeches. One might question him as a reliable source, but his environmental education at Harvard (38) and his constant contact with the scientific community (138-141) safely put these doubts to rest.
Before addressing the ways in which Al Gore meets the specific guidelines of USC’s awarding process, it seems prudent to first examine Freedman’s wisdom in regards to the key factors in making an earnest selection of an honorand. These considerations are of supreme importance, Freedman opines, because “[i]n bestowing an honorary degree, a university makes an explicit statement to its students and the world about the qualities of character and attainment it admires most” (117). He warns against choosing controversial figures and celebrities as he feels they may harm the university’s national image and champions instead those who have attained “intellectual distinction and public service” (118), those with whom bonds can be forged to benefit the university and its students, and those public officials with a “moral dimension” (127). Al Gore is not a risky choice since there is no controversy attached to his character; Freedman’s concern regarding the “harm” celebrity might cause is also unfounded in Gore’s case given that his fame is of a different nature than the popular culture icons that are commonly associated with the word “celebrity” today. Certainly a leader in public service, Gore is also one who can potentially offer great opportunities for USC to take a leading position on the world stage in advancing research into alternative energy and sustainable engineering, for example. He is also what Freedman would deem a prize candidate due to the moral tone of his public work since it allows for his commencement speech “to make an important public announcement” (127). In choosing Gore as an honoree, USC will make the statement that it not only supports active stewardship of the environment, but also the values and characteristics Gore embodies: he is ethical in his pursuit of the scientific truth, unafraid to challenge authority and stand up for his beliefs, and intent on following, with integrity, that vocation which holds moral and personal value to him.
Mike Martin devotes his book, Meaningful Work: Rethinking Professional Ethics, to this idea of adding meaning and morals to the professional arena. His writing is helpful in recognizing the attributes that characterize the highest caliber individual who is most deserving of an honorary degree. To gauge the attainment of “meaningful work,” Martin defines the term in three categories: “craft, compensation, and moral concern” (21), or termed differently, “advanced expertise, social recognition, and service to clients and community” (22). Al Gore exhibits all of these tenets. In his book, An Inconvenient Truth, this craft is demonstrated by the accurate information he communicates and the evidence of his continued thirst for more knowledge. He provides a clear and complete analysis of the global warming problem, discussing far-reaching topics ranging from the melting of the polar ice caps to rising temperature trends, from new extreme weather disasters to species extinctions, and from deforestation to the politics of CO2 emissions. All of this is presented as data from scientific studies, compiled and simplistically explained by Gore to make it understandable to his less scientific audience. He also displays academic prowess by the many excursions he has taken with scientific teams in order to gain a better understanding of the science behind the statements he makes. In his book, Gore mentions 24 different scientific locations he has visited (138). Additionally, he has played a major role in many legislative efforts, including the negotiations at Kyoto (8-11).
Al Gore likewise demonstrates Martin’s second and third tenets of meaningful work: social recognition and service to the community. Not only has he been elected to several political offices, including both Representative and Senator from Tennessee and Vice President of the United States, he has also been recognized as one of the leading forces in raising environmental awareness. This was indicated when film producer Lawrence Bender and director Davis Gugenheim exhibited faith in Gore’s message by agreeing to collaborate with him to make the movie version of his book, An Inconvenient Truth, a venture that proved successful. Through this social recognition, Gore has been able to further spread his message, thereby providing a great service to his community, an achievement that qualifies him for the doctoral degree in law, or outstanding public service. Throughout Al Gore’s career, one can also make a strong case for his morals and ethics, an important consideration in distinguishing meaningful work. Reports of indiscretions do not permeate Gore’s reputation, a promising sign bearing in mind the mud-slinging involved in high profile politics. This enhances his character and allows his message to be more easily received by both its proponents and critics. His two books, Earth in Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit and An Inconvenient Truth, have served to raise awareness among the general public, hopefully bringing about the dawn of a new environmental outlook. He supplements this by devoting himself to lecturing around the country. “For the last six years,” Gore says, “I have been traveling around the world, sharing the information I have compiled with anyone who would listen. I have traveled to colleges, to small towns and big cities. More and more, I have begun to feel that I am changing minds, but it is a slow process” (9). It is difficult to find impure motives in Gore’s efforts to better the world. Taking no profit from his success, he donates 100% of the proceeds from his books and the movie “to a non-profit, bipartisan effort to move public opinion in the United States to support bold action to confront global warming” (10). Practicing what he preaches, his books are printed on 30% post-consumer fiber and are manufactured using 100% green power (338).
By bestowing Al Gore with an honorary degree, USC will fulfill all of the guidelines by which it selects its honorees. The university indicates that the award is meant “to honor individuals who have distinguished themselves through extraordinary achievements in scholarship, the professions, or other creative activities;” “to honor alumni and other individuals who have made outstanding contributions…to USC or the[ir] communities;” “to recognize exceptional acts of philanthropy to the university and/or on the national or world scene;” and “to elevate the university...by honoring individuals who are widely known and highly regarded for achievements in their respective fields..." It has been shown above how Al Gore effectively fulfills these criteria. He has made a personal vow to protect the environment and has spent his career expending countless man-hours to promote and further that cause. As a leader on the environmental and political stages, Gore’s acceptance of an honorary degree from USC would bestow the institution with a prestigious recognition that it could be a prominent player in environmental reform and activism.
While Al Gore appears to be a prime choice for an honorary degree, James Freedman and others who share his viewpoint might object to Gore’s receipt of such a distinguished honor. In Freedman’s writings on the proper selection of an honorary degree recipient, he aggressively discourages the awarding thereof to a celebrity, opining that “the twins of egotism and insecurity [are] as insatiable as they are” (124). He casts a negative light on the choice of Yale University to award degrees to Jodie Foster and Julie Andrews, saying that the school “lower[ed] the bar” (126) in doing so. However, Freedman offers no discussion of the women’s achievements in the field of acting or on the world stage. It seems contradictory that artists or fictional writers may be given accolades for their heralding artistic and literary achievements and for their ability to contribute to society by moving their audiences, yet actors who do the same creative work are deemed unacceptable. Though agreeable that celebrities who are merely popular culture icons and who have contributed nothing to their field or to the community should not be awarded honors based solely on their fame, it does not follow that simply because an exceptional person happens to be met with celebrity, their achievements should be excluded.
Indeed, one might argue that Al Gore’s recognizable public face serves as a mode by which to attract more attention to the cause for which he is fighting. Celebrities are constantly recruited to stand at the forefront of an issue in order to draw in listeners who might have otherwise been unaware of the topic. Shirley Temple and Angelina Jolie are prime examples of celebrities heading United Nations campaigns, as is Audrey Hepburn and her work for UNICEF. Not only are these women extraordinary in their acting expertise, but the time and effort they devote to promoting a cause cannot be overlooked simply due to their profession that is not typically taken seriously. As with Al Gore, their celebrity primarily allows them greater resources and visibility to push the effort forward. In fact, Gore does not present solely his own ideas, but serves as a conduit for scientists’ voices that might have otherwise gone unpublicized. Many environmentalists have long spouted the same principles as Gore, but it was a cry largely unheard on the public scale. Yet when Al Gore speaks, people listen. His Keynote Presentation on global warming, delivered well over 1,000 times, has received standing ovations on multiple accounts, indicating his ability to capture the public’s eye and open their minds to environmental consciousness. Perhaps coincidental, the belief in the existence of global warming and the need to do something about it has increased in the recent years, arguably a result of work by visible people such as Al Gore. By simply educating the country on the issues at hand, Gore’s service to humanity and the scientific community certainly qualifies him for the proposed honorary degree in the category of law, or outstanding public service. By gaining popular appeal for the issues, scientific research may thrive from additional funding, therefore protecting the planet for future generations.
Finally, in making nominations for an honorary degree, it is prudent to also consider the weight and compelling nature of the commencement speech the honoree might present. Because of the varied experience he has had in the public arena, Al Gore has a plethora of advice to impart to graduating seniors. For example, delivering profoundly popular Keynote Presentation would be highly effective. To take a different approach, he might recount the rewarding experience gained from contributing to the community through public office. More environmentally specific, he may also discuss global warming, methods to fight it, sustainable development, and the necessity for a paradigm shift in the way humanity views the future and the environment. His advice to the graduates would perhaps be to take a forward-looking approach to life and the impact one has on his present world and that of generations to come. A compelling quote from the introduction of An Inconvenient Truth indicates the moving capacity of the inspiration he could provide to the graduating class: “The climate crisis also offers us with the chance to experience what very few generations in history have had the privilege of knowing: a general mission; the exhilaration of a compelling moral purpose; a shared and unifying cause; the thrill of being forced by circumstances to put aside the pettiness and conflict that so often stifle the restless human need for transcendence; the opportunity to rise” (10).
Al Gore’s commitment to bettering society and striving to protect the environment makes him an excellent candidate for an honorary doctorate degree from USC. His devotion to the issues and values close to his heart makes him an outstanding example to those ready to embark on making their mark on the world. Using his public face and the experience he has in many arenas—environmentalism, politics, and business—Al Gore’s voice for environmental protection, activism, and awareness is slowly turning the world to take a closer look at its environmental situation. He is a successful herald in his field, and his ethics and goals are congruous with USC’s standards. A great deal could be learned by sincerely examining Al Gore’s contributions to society and the methods and morals by which he achieves them.